Raymond Griffith tries his hand at historical comedy. He plays a spy trying to intercept a gold shipment but must deal with an enemy officer and two distractions: a blonde and a brunette.
When you sign on for a Raymond Griffith comedy, you know you’re in for a good time. Griffith is often left out of the silent comedy conversation in favor of the simplistic notion of the Big Four or a comedy pantheon, which kind of proves the ridiculousness of these notions. If that precious pantheon doesn’t include Griffith (or Bebe Daniels or Marion Davies or Charley Chase or dozens of others), I’m not interested. Hands Up is generally reckoned to be one of his finest films, a goofy Civil War spy comedy imbued with the same saucy spirit as Some Like It Hot (1959).
The McGuffin: A shipment of gold desperately needed by the Union and that the Confederacy hopes to steal.
The Players: Raymond Griffith plays Jack, one of the best spies in the Confederacy. Playing for the Union side is Captain Logan, played by Montagu Love, who is taking a break from being stabbed by John Barrymore, strangled by Rudolph Valentino and shot by Lillian Gish.
Jack must race Captain Logan behind enemy lines, intercept the gold shipment and drive it to the south. This proves to be a bit of a challenge as the gold mine is owned by Silas Woodstock (Mack Swain). Woodstock himself is not the problem so much as his beautiful daughters, Mae and Alice (Marian Nixon and Virginia Lee Corbin). They both fall head over heels for the dashing Jack and he for them.
Will Jack get that gold? Will the Union win the Civil War? Will Montagu Love add another death scene to his resume? Watch Hands Up to find out!
By the way, it really would be unfair of me to spoil the film’s punchline and resolution to its romantic question and so I will leave the matter alone. Do yourself a favor and snatch up a copy. I’ll wait.
How to describe Raymond Griffith? He’s on the lighter side of the comedy spectrum, a mischievous schemer who always has an ace or two up his sleeve. Both his jaunty manner and his predilection for tricking his opponents with a painted wall makes him more of a live-action Looney Tunes character.
Why isn’t he more famous? Frankly, we could say that about 99% of all silent stars but let’s take a closer look at this particular mystery. Part of Griffith’s problem is that he was not the brains of his operation the way, say, Charlie Chaplin was. Well, I don’t actually consider it to be a problem but the notion that a comedy great also has to be chief cook and bottle washer is a popular one. (In a similar way that singers are all expected to be singer-songwriters these days.) Griffith is so charming and his performance is so enchanting that I can easily deal with the fact that he did not direct, write, edit, sew the costumes and make sandwiches for the crew.
As Jack, Griffith is unflappable and always armed with a backup plan and a backup plan for his backup plan. They’re goofy but they are plans. (Yes, one of them does include painting a likeness of himself on the side of a building. Like I said, Looney Tunes.) Jack isn’t particularly patriotic and, frankly, doesn’t seem to care much about the gold shipment he is supposed to be stealing. He just enjoys outfoxing Logan and making time to flirt with the lovely Woodstock ladies. (Should I insert a hippy joke? I get this feeling that I should insert a hippy joke.) He also plays strip dice with Noble Johnson, so there’s that. (Griffith explains the rules entirely with pantomime and darn if you couldn’t use them as a tutorial video in Las Vegas.)
Montagu Love, usually cast as the lusty villain, works well as the straight man; in another film (and in reality), he would have been the hero. He also plays beautifully opposite comedy veteran Mack Swain, whose character has a heart as big as all outdoors but lacks two brain cells to rub together. (Pretty much his signature character at this point, it seems.)
The double act of Marian Nixon and Virginia Lee Corbin further adds to the fun as they flutter about in their crinolines and display identical reactions to everything. Both have excellent chemistry with Griffith, which further complicates the “Which one shall it be?” question at the end of the film.
Clarence Badger, probably best remembered for directing It, keeps things moving along at a mad pace and gives his talented performers plenty of room to shine.
The film keeps things light even as it flirts with the taboo subject of bigamy and nothing is ever too serious (including two attempted executions). Hey, I said it was funny, I never said it was in 100% good taste. (I have a soft spot for black comedy but I know it’s not for everyone.)
On the minus side of the equation, we now see that the Lost Cause narrative has become hopelessly lodged in the Hollywood vision of the Civil War. (When The Confederate Ironclad was made in 1912, there was still a question of which side to portray but a series of sniveling tantrums and shameless revisionism from Southern apologists made the Lost Cause Hollywood’s favorite storyline.)
This (along with a spoof of cowboys and Indians cliches) leads to some rather unfortunate optics, to say the least. However, the setting of Hands Up is really meant as window dressing for the gags and so it is not nearly as squirm-inducing as The General. Still, your mileage may vary and I think a heads up is only fair. (Yes, I know what context is and believe it or not, it’s not a magic word that makes all discussion of racism, revisionism and other social issues disappear. We’re discussing this BECAUSE of context.)
Hands Up is easily the funniest silent comedy you’ve never seen. Well, maybe never seen is a misstatement. Griffith has quite a following among silent fans but his reputation does not seem to have crossed beyond our border, more’s the pity. You should also be delighted by the antics of veteran hams Mack Swain and Montagu Love, as well as the underrated comedy chops of Marian Nixon and Virginia Lee Corbin. Basically, this movie is a delightful chocolate sampler box (one of the good ones) and has something for almost everyone.
Hands Up is an ideal introduction to Griffith’s Silk Hat persona and makes for a delightful hour of entertainment. Highly recommended.
Where can I see it?
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